While gang members from Mexico to Russia go online to track down targets, intimidate adversaries and run lucrative Internet scams, American gangs are decidedly less savvy when it comes to the Internet.
Members of American gangs use the Internet mostly to boast about their activity, according to "Criminal and Routine Activities in Online Settings: Gangs, Offenders, and the Internet," a new study in Justice Quarterly. The study was funded by Google Ideas, a "think/do tank" that looks at technology's impact on society.
The authors surveyed more than 400 current and former gang members in five U.S. cities. Nearly half of the gang members said their gang posted videos of its activities online, and more than half said they searched out videos from other gangs, often for entertainment. A quarter said they researched rival gangs online.
The study concluded that gang members use the Internet as much, if not more, than people who are not in gangs. The authors found that, while gang members and non-gang members alike use Facebook at equal rates, "[this] changes when we turn to MySpace, Twitter, and other social networking sites. Notably, over one-quarter of current and former gang members, compared to one-sixth of non-gang respondents, report using alternative sites, such as YouTube, Hoodup, and WorldstarHipHop."
What American gang members don't much use the Internet for is coordinating activity or recruiting new members. Fewer than one in five gang members surveyed said their gang had a website, and only about 10 percent said their gang organized or recruited online.
"[American] gangs use the Internet much like an electronic graf?ti wall," wrote the authors.
Mexican gangs, on the other hand, have been using the Internet to send a message to anyone who might want to curtail their activity. According to a 2011 Washington Post article, Mexican gang members go online to identify targets, particularly those who have angered them by posting negative things about them.
The Post reported that two bodies were hung from a bridge in the Mexican border town of Nuevo Laredo, with a sign that warned others that "This will happen to all Internet busy bodies."
Mexican gang members have also used the Internet to threaten journalists who cover gang activity. And they follow through on some of the threats. The Post notes that more than 40 reporters were killed in Mexico between 2004 and 2011. Even more disappeared.
"Lurid Web sites depicting gruesome photographs and videos of torture sessions are popular in Mexico," the Post article said. "Formerly fringe sites such as El Blog de Narco have become virtual clearinghouses of the day's carnage — for the public and for police and prosecutors — as well as a kind of crude scoreboard for the cartel soldiers."
European and Asian gangs, meanwhile, use the Internet to run scams and contraband. The New York Times reported in 2008 that a Russian gang was using software to infect thousands of computers and steal passwords and other information.
So why are American gangs seemingly more reluctant to engage in such activity online?
The answer appears to be that they just aren't tech-savvy.
"Perhaps once [American] gangs acquire the technological knowhow to exploit the instrumental opportunities available online, with the ability to diffuse responsibility to limit law enforcement surveillance and intervention, we will see a more advanced manipulation of the Internet among gangs," the authors wrote.